Monday, March 23, 2009

Seoul’s urban transformation

Widely known abroad for its tense north-south divide, South Korea is a nation of divisions and contradictions. It’s clearly part of Asia, yet fiercely independent. Culturally conservative, but a successful exporter of its cultural products, like TV soap operas and Korean cuisine. Peaceful and stable, yet still locked in a deep-frozen civil war with its northern half. Seoul, South Korea’s huge capital city of 11 million people, showcases all these contradictory traits and more.

The broad Han River divides Seoul itself into two distinct halves: north and south. As a simple orientation rule for newcomers, north equals ‘old’ and south, ‘new’. The city’s roots are on the northern side, where you’ll find government and diplomats, traditional street markets, arts and culture, mixed together with the offices of sober old bankers, insurance companies and manufacturers. On the southern side, a landscape once dotted with villages and farms is reaping a new harvest of gleaming office towers filled with media start-ups and high-tech companies, all overlooking the trendiest restaurants and nightspots. Most of this urban transformation has occurred within the past 30 years.

Despite the mountains and green hills that break through the gray urban sprawl, smoggy Seoul is not a conventionally beautiful city. The utter devastation of the Korean War, followed by hasty reconstruction and unrestrained growth, means that almost none of the original, traditional architecture survives. The rapidly-built shophouses and tenements of the 1960s now look squat and shabby, while the towering apartment blocks of the ’80s and ’90s are faceless clones, distinguishable primarily by numbers and giant corporate logos. Recent years have seen more forward-thinking initiatives, like the resurrection of the central four-mile-long Cheonggye Stream, which was buried like a sewer beneath grimy expressways during Korea’s headlong industrial growth.

The $300-million redevelopment of Cheonggye Stream into a attractive, popular water park is one sign of a new confidence and maturity in Korean society. However, nothing is quite as effortless as it appears—the original sources that fed the stream are long gone, so the water bubbling over its carefully-placed boulders is now mostly pumped up from downriver. But unconcerned by questions of authenticity, smartly-dressed couples and families happily promenade along the brightly-lit waterside during evenings and weekends. Together with the dazzling shops, cafés and boutiques of the Myeongdong shopping district nearby, it reveals a more lighthearted Korea, quite different from traditions of frugality, dour industry and self-effacing hard work.

Higher incomes, more free time and foreign influences have begun to relax Korea’s outlook. “You never used to see people driving a luxury foreign car like a Porsche or Ferrari here. That’s something that’s changed in recent years”, says Adrian Slater, general manager of the Park Hyatt in the Gangnam District.

Korean professionals, particularly in newer areas like Gangnam, believe in dressing up; if you see a group of office workers heading out for lunch, you could easily make the mistake of guessing they’re headed for a formal affair. Female office workers dress quite formally and are rarely seen without makeup, while men wear suits and ties—fortunately, the weather is usually cool and dry enough to make this comfortable.

Gangnam itself is the heart of modern Seoul’s business and residential zone. More than half of Seoul’s high-status professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, live there. The area hosts many of Korea’s leading high-tech and media companies, as well as local offices of many international firms. There’s also the giant COEX Exhibition Center.

Gangnam has a good selection of trendy malls, nightspots and restaurants, such as the popular The Gaon in busy Apgujeong, near the river. The Gaon serves modern revisions of traditional Korean dishes on three differently-themed floors. Like other newly-developed parts of Seoul, the broad streets can seem rather barren and windswept compared to the lively, older areas of the city.

The former island of Yeouido, in the Han River, is a similar newly-developed area. Yeouido is the new home to Korea’s stock exchange. It is also home to an increasing number of companies in the financial sector, driven out of the old city center by high rents in their traditional offices around Myeongdong. As a tourist destination, Yeouido is dull. If you have free time there during a weekend, check out the park, where hordes of locals rent unfamiliar bicycles for the sheer joy of wobbling their way around—and around—for hours. Alternatively, take a quiet walk along the trails by the river. You can also sample the entire block of new restaurants across the street from the KBS TV station building at the edge of the park.

These new districts have been developed by government and industry, working together in a peculiarly close relationship. “Korea used to be controlled by the government and the army, but now it’s the government and the Chaebols”, says Korean-American entrepreneur, Nicky Kim.

Korea’s Chaebols are giant industrial conglomerates, like Samsung and Hyundai, the two largest. Foreigners are used to seeing names like LG and Samsung stamped on items like electronic gadgets, but in Korea, you’ll also find those familiar brands on a huge range of products and services, such as toothpaste, clothing stores, amusement parks, and gas stations. This emphasizes just how influential these companies are in their home country—Samsung’s revenue exceeds 15 percent of Korea’s GDP.

Despite the country’s reliance on international trade, the general level of English speaking ability in Korea is relatively poor, even in the capital. Most companies dealing with foreigners will have one or two competent English speakers, but don’t depend on ordinary people, such as shop staff or taxi drivers, to understand English—even your attempts at pronouncing a Korean address. Korea also hasn’t quite settled on a way of converting its alphabet to English letters, so be prepared for variations in spelling in street names and the like.

Wherever you find yourself, Seoul provides a huge variety of eating choices, from upscale restaurants to an overwhelming variety of cheap street food. No tipping is expected. You can also find Western cuisine, which is modified to suit local tastes in mass-market restaurants. (It’s generally sweeter, and foreign flavors, like cheese, are milder.)

There are thousands of street stalls offering quick, cheap, delicious food. Korea’s bitter winter weather means you may find these stalls inside canvas tents, or pojangmacha, making it harder to exercise due diligence before you order. But jump in and try local specialties, like hotteok (sweet pancakes), ginseng chicken soup, dolsot bibimbap (a sizzling-hot stone pot filled with rice, topped with vegetables and beef) or bul dak (chicken fried in very spicy sauce). You won’t be able to avoid the kimchi side dish, a national symbol, so you had better learn to enjoy it. And don’t miss Korea’s brilliant innovations in fast food technology, such as the time-saving French fry-encrusted corn dog, which delivers an entire day’s calories in seconds.

While you should probably walk after that, taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, at about $1.20 per mile. The black and yellow deluxe taxis cost twice as much, but are more luxurious, with well-trained drivers. There’s a central call number with English interpretation for deluxe taxis: 3431-5100. The bridges across the Han River are inevitable bottlenecks for road journeys between Seoul’s north and south halves, so allow an extra 20 minutes to cross during rush hours. The city’s excellent, extensive subway system is worth using. It’s quicker than driving during rush hours.


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